Entry #006: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 (Meknes, Morocco)

[Note: This is really a continuation of Post #005. If you haven't read that one yet, and want to know how well I integrate back into college society, I highly suggest doing so. (Spoiler: Not well.)]

After I parted ways with Anass, I got back to the Tetouan bus station, and found myself back in the lovely, discomforting position of not knowing what the hell was going on. I was planning on taking a bus to Fes, to meet up with my next host, Jamal. So I look around at every sign at the ticket office, and not one has the word "Fes" on it.

I am getting a little discombobulated, and am still worried to ask anyone for assistance  because I was specifically warned about the touts and frauds in this station. Still, after making another set of rounds in the building, I decide to go into Neanderthal mode. I walk up to someone who looks official, and say, "Fes." He replies back, "Fes?" "Fes," I confirm. He points me to a window. I walk over and, after realizing there isn't much of a line, push my way to the cashier and say "Fes," handing him an amount of money I know will cover the ticket and then some. "Fes?" "Fes." He writes something down on a ticket, hands it to me, and then gives me change, which I put into my pocket without counting. Not that I'd be able to dispute it if it was wrong.

I sat down at a cafe, ordered a tea (one of the advantages of enjoying the tea here is that it's very easy to order without knowing the language), an called Jamal to let him know I'm on my way to Fes. "But I'm actually in Meknes now. Do you think you could come there?" Dammit! I ask for how to get to Meknes, and he says I can use a train or taxi, and to meet him at the train station. A quick look at my offline travel guide seems to note Meknes as a nice place, so I'm willing to go for it, rather than book an emergency hotel in Fes.

About twenty minutes before my bus leaves, I decide to look for it. I go to the main floor, hold my ticket tightly, and go back into Neanderthal mode. "Fes?" I ask, showing my ticket to a guard. He looks at it and points me to a bus. I walk to it and hand my ticket to the driver. "Fes." He nods and motions me on board. I then find an empty row (I don't know why I thought this would be easy, but it wasn't), sit down by the window, and place my backpack on my lap, immediately feeling the pressure on my legs. I could have paid a little bit more to have it go under the bus, but honestly, that was the last thing I wanted. Everything I had was in that backpack, even my regret rug, which I was legitimately surprised I was able to fit in (mostly by squishing everything even more than it already was).

As we start to drive away from the station, nobody is sitting next to me. Maybe that's one advantage of being the dirty foreigner. But right before I set my bag down next to me, four more people spontaneously appear in the bus. I don't know how; we were already driving down the road. But they needed a place to sit, and so I had to shift my bag back upon my legs. I then took out my Kindle and began reading, looking out the window occasionally for the good picture.

Well, this bus ride went on for a full six hours, stopping every so often to drop somebody off or pick more up to fill vacant seats. Occasionally this was at an official station, where some street vendors came in with snacks and drinks. I was tempted to buy a drink, because I was seriously dehydrated through the whole day, but this wasn't a Greyhound bus, and there were no restrooms. If you had to go...well, you couldn't go. I didn't want to tempt fate by putting liquids in my body. But yeah, it was a long trip.

I was glad to have a window seat, though. Because there were long expanses of beautiful terrain. I know most people think of Morocco as desert, but that's literally just near the southern border. The rest of it is full of mountains and valleys, which is a lot of what I saw. I managed to take a few good pictures while traveling, and I will thus use this moment to praise the Sony RX-100, which is an amazing camera. Compact, study, and takes great pictures. The high-speed shutter priority setting is particularly great for my pictures in trains and buses, because with almost any normal camera, those pictures would all be super-blurry.

At one point, fairly early on in the trip, our bus was stopped by the police at what looked like some sort of checkpoint. I could hear some argument, but I tried just reading and ignoring it, figuring it must be routine. I then see a couple passengers exiting the bus, and others looking out the window. Okay, maybe it wasn't routine. I look out the window. One of the bus managers opens the cargo hold, and pulls a bag out. The bag falls immediately into the mud on the side of the road. I hug my backpack, thankful I never left her out of my sight. They then pulling out other packs, which seem to be large vacuum bags filled with rugs. Literally dozens and dozens of these bags, all seeming to belong to one passenger. He's arguing with one police officer, someone else is arguing with another officer, a dog is barking, and I have no clue what is going on. I covertly take a couple pictures, careful not to let anyone see me. Eventually, we leave the man and his bags behind with the police, to a fate I'll never know. The man sitting next to me takes his seat, and I'm thankful to take the weight of my backpack off for a while.

As we drove through a number of towns, and the countryside in general, I saw a lot of horse-drawn carriages  That's when it really hit me. When you think "horse-drawn carriage , you think of those white-molded, Cinderella-like carriages driven by a dude in a top hat that take tourists through big cities. But this wasn't some novelty; this was legitimate transportation through these downs. Just a tired-looking horse or donkey taking tired-looking people down a tired-looking dirt road. Christ, I thought, poverty. Poverty on a level you hardly see in the US. Because these people aren't the a relatively small homeless population. They have homes, and their homes are really just cinder-block shacks lit up by a propane lamp. And here I was, taking pictures with my expensive camera, reading my fancy Kindle. I could buy and sell every single person in that bus. Or I could give them each enough to feed their families for a several months.

So, yeah, white guilt setting in.

But I didn't become a sudden philanthropist in that bus. I'm just not that selfless of a person. I did actively try to not flaunt my wealth any more than my skin already does.

Somewhere, maybe three-fourths of the way, I finished my second book of this trip, which was also the second book of the Hunger Games trilogy. I am enjoying that series more than I have any right to enjoy any books targeted toward teenage girls. It also hit me that I finished two books in one week. I love to read, but somehow I never do unless I travel. I'm not nearly as fast a reader as my eldest sister, mainly because of how I visualize everything in my head, but give me long stretches to travel, and I can start powering through them. In fact, I am going to start a list of all the books I finish on this blog. It will either be on the side, or a new page above. I dunno, look for it. Maybe we can start a club!

Anyhoo, after I stopped reading (I don't like to start a new book on the same day I finish one for some reason), I began reflecting on language. This has been a topic that has been resurfacing in my mind for some time, and yet somehow always seems relevant. Long story short, I think I am a love-slave to English. I love it, but man do I need it. I have, for lack of a less bombastic word, mastered English at the expense of all others, even Spanish, my "second language". And as I mentioned before, I feel vulnerable whenever I am not around it, especially in a place like Morocco, where the primary alphabet is not even the Latin one. But when I hear English, it's like I am shot up with endorphin. I feel so happy, so free. This is one reason I was happy that Jamal was an English teacher. It's also why I'm happy that in most places I go, English is a common, official second language, as opposed to an rare third language. So yes, if there are any budding Lex Luthors out there, my weakness is other languages. Not to say I won't try to learn, but man, it's not easy for me.

But thank God for my phone's Google translate app, and the ability to download language packs for offline use. Being able to type something and have it appear in Arabic is super useful when nobody in the area speaks English. And jeez, it was useful here. At one point, about at the six hour mark, we reach a city, and looking out the window, I see a sign that says something like "Meknès Poste de Police". Meknes! I didn't realize it came before Fes. I quickly typed in "I need to get off now!" on my phone, and showed it to the bus manager. He nodded, and I was dropped off. This was super fortunate, because after checking a map, it would have taken another two hours and some money to get me back to this point. I find a taxi and muddle my way through telling him to take me to the train station.

And there, I meet Jamal. He brought me to his apartment, which he shared with one roommate (Hamid) and his visiting girlfriend from Brazil (Lana). I felt bad for Hamid, because he was still a beginner in English, but English was the only common language between the other three of us, so I was so selfishly happy. We had dinner - a different type of tajine and lots of bread - and I connected to the Internet for the first time in a while, only to see the horrible news coming out of Boston. My prayers go out to everyone affected by that.

I then went to bed with Hamid without cleaning myself, mainly because I was unsure what the proper protocol was in their bathroom (I should have asked before Jamal went to bed). We then woke up the next morning and had breakfast as a group. Eggs, Laughing Cow cheese, butter, some type of meat tube, coffee, and bread. Always bread. After spreading some butter on one of my pieces of bread and eating it as any American is wont to do, I realized I was supposed to make a sandwich of all of this. So I took what was left of my bread and followed suit.

Jamal went to teach one of his classes, and...oh, yeah, I should probably explain. Jamal is amazing. He's in university, but he didn't like the way the system was teaching English, so he began a language institute to teach people. "Language Without Borders." And he meets with groups of students, turning them into competent English speakers in months, all while improving their self-confidence. When he said he needed to call his secretary, I thought he meant the secretary where he worked. No, his secretary. He owns this language center. And he's hoping to travel to a cultural center near UC Davis to teach Arabic studies for a time. And he's twenty-freakin'-two. Crazy talented dude.

Anyway, he left, and Lana and I had a nice long conversation. Which I liked (anyone who knows me knows that I like long conversations). We talked about her past, Brazil, travel insurance, the differences in English accents, and the difficulty of communicating in Morocco. Very nice girl, very fun to speak with. Eventually, Jamal returned, and we had lunch, again as a group plus Hamid's brother. One thing that has struck me about this place is how communal all the meals are. Taking aside the literal fact that everyone eats from the same plate, there is just the fact that everyone seems to eat all their meals together. It's definitely one of the things that you don't see as much in mainstream American culture at the moment. This time, we had yet another type of tajine, and more bread. Seriously, I have had more bread in the last couple days than I have in the last couple months. I want to be immersed in the culture, but I also don't want to become fat again.

After lunch, Jamal asks if I want to come to his afternoon class. He says I can teach them. I say I would love to see his class. I walk over, we pick up some of his students, a small group of girls who seem to be high school or maybe college aged. We then walk over to an apartment building, where he is beginning to put together his second center. When we get there, he hands me a marker. I looked at him quizzically  "I told you, you're teaching." Christ, I thought he was joking. Lana confirmed that he made her do this a couple times.

So, I stand up in front of the class. I introduce myself, say that I'm from the United States (little interest)...from California (moderate interest)...from San Francisco (super interest). This is something I've found so far: people from other countries seem to love San Francisco, so the closer you associate yourself with it, the better. After that completely uninformative beginning, I ask if anyone has any questions. Jamal asks me to discuss my accent and pronunciation. I write on the whiteboard, "CALIFORNIA ACCENT - STANDARD AMERICAN" and explain that my accent is different than the British one they normally learn, is the most common one in the United States, and is the one most present in film and TV shows, because, you know, Hollywood. I then write down "BUTTER" on the board, saying that the two letters which best differentiate American and British accents are the T and the R (my example being the British "buttah" and the American "Budder"). I then write down "GLOTTAL STOP", planning to explain the semantics behind these differences, when I realize, What the hell are you doing teaching these beginners something that most native speakers wouldn't understand?

I erase the board and then write down "OUGH" about five times. One by one, I ask the class to try to pronounce though, through, rough, bough, and slough. As expected, they get almost everything wrong. Now, about halfway through me doing this, I thought that this was going to do nothing but intimidate them, so I tried to salvage the situation by confirming that the point of this was that the only way to really know English was to practice, so stay in your classes, kids. (Whew!)

I then sat down, and watched Jamal teach. He did much better than me. They listened to an audio program about laughing, which the students then had to answer questions about. They then had an activity in which partners had to make each other laugh. As an example, Jamal brought Lana and myself to the front. Poor Lana never stood a chance. My years of theater experience have made me immune to people trying to make me laugh, but one goat bleat and the whole class was cracking up (I swear, that will be my most useful skill on this trip). I then also did some wacky movements, and she was laughing hard. The rest of the class went up, and one of the girls, who apparently was a chronic laughter, made a strong attempt to not laugh, so eventually, I went up to her. I tried using a chipmunk voice, singing a song in said voice, walking out and doing a Michael Jackson entrance, and then plopping my hat on her head. She was a trooper, hardly containing herself. But I eventually declared her the winner.

After that class was done, I took a walk down the street. I had forgotten my phone, so I had no navigation source, so I just stayed on one street, being careful to note landmarks to find my way back. The walk was hot but nice, and I stopped at a cafe for a tea. (I think you'll hear that quite a bit.) I then got back to the center and, finding Jamal occupied with another set of students, I spoke with Lana again, mostly us just going through some educational language posters, and debating the merits of the American accent. I also tried to convince her that "bed" and "bad" do, in fact, sound different. Oh, yeah, and we discussed how much we loved Subway. Kindred spirit?

When the class was done, we began walking home and I spoke with Jamal about a number of things. Somehow, we got on the topic of health (I think because I mentioned how I don't drink or smoke). I say I used to weigh 130 kilograms, which amazes him. (I later found out it was more like 120 kilograms, but I'm still new to this metric stuff.) We stop to get some bread at the market, and then all sit down at the table, to have more eggs, coffee, butter, cheese, coffee, tea, and - you guessed it - bread. We also had "skim milk", which is something very different from what I was expecting (and not really to my liking). Jamal asked me what advice I had to lose weight, and I said the best start would be to get rid of bread, which I could tell pained him deeply. I suggested more leafy green vegetables. And really, I said, if you ate tajine and replaced bread with silverware, you could save hundreds of calories a day. He said he'd give up bread tomorrow. I don't know how easy it will be for him to give up cold turkey, but I wish him the best.

I then spent most of the rest of the night writing (can't you tell?). At some point, Jamal said, "Is it okay if we don't have dinner?" My brow furrows. "Didn't we already?" "No, that was just a pre-dinner snack." Jesus. Okay, tip number two - fewer meals, especially if they involve bread.

Overall, my experience with Jamal is much more to my liking than with Anass, just because he seems like the kind of guy I would have hung out in college anyway. A go-getter, and somewhat of a goody-goody.

Definitely glad I didn't decide to get that emergency hotel this time.


  1. Sounds like you almost ran across some trouble. Well, seems like Morocco has a fairly decent human rights record compared to some of their neighbors. Just remember that my ability to get you out of jail extends to just California...and that's being optimistic ;)

    Jamal's story and the English school caught my interest. I know nothing about the Moroccan education system, but I can say that running your own language program at the age of 22 is darn near unheard of here. Yes, there is something to be said about requiring minimum levels of competency and the bureaucracy in education, but I wonder if we have a certain level of complacency towards education. In other words - if the opportunity to do something similar to Jamal presented itself, would the average American take it? There isn't a lot of fiscal incentives to become an educator, certainly not in the short run. Sure, online courses may help a little, but most of them are non-credit courses that are little different than watching a TED Talks video.

    Alright, enough of a rant for today. Take care and watch your back (and your backpack!)


    P.S. A few days to read a book?!?! It takes me months to finish a book! Granted, I'm not a very dedicated reader, but still, takes me about an hour to get through 20 pages or so. Guess we all have our strengths and weaknesses.

    1. It does require certain competences to open a Language school, but when i was student at the University i was in the same time i was studying management in another institution it was super hard because i had to attend all the classes Morning/afternoon with no break time for Lunch, but it was ok, In Morocco everything looks impossible unless you are ready to fight for it and that what i did i fought for that school and it has to happen because in the end of the day im not trying to be a business famous man, i just want to help student get good education because when i was 12yeas i started to live alone to study in the city while my parents live in country side my school my teachers or no one take my situation under consideration.

  2. Hello Andrew, This is Jamal, how are you man i havent heard from you, until I randomly found this article Im really happy that you had a good time here,and i want to thank you for the nice words you said.
    Pass: I visited Lana in Brazil after she visited Morocco i spent there 3months and now I'm back with Languages Without Borders which is now bigger and has more people but its not in the same place where it was, i was obliged to change the location because the ministry of education forced me to find larger place with no residents,here is the website www.lwbcenter.com you can also find some of the things we are doing and activities i have done in Brazil..

    Hope to hear from you very soon